Is the Dead Drift Overrated or Wrongly Used or Just Inefficient?

by Chris Hendriks

Before reading this article, please take in mind that the statements that are being made are based on dry fly fishing, observations of fish feeding on real insects and my own fishing experiences and guiding on creeks and big rivers.

A bold statement when almost everything within general fly fishing is based on the dead drift. But what is the deaddrift?

The dead drift; “ In most dry-fly fishing, a “natural” presentation is dead-drift, which means your floating fly is moving at the same speed and direction as the surface current.” (

Within western fly fishing the line lies completely on the water surface. The only way to present a fly naturally is drag free or what we call dead drift. As soon as we get a drag on our fly, the fly reacts unnaturally.

From the beginning of western fly fishing, almost everything else then presenting a dry fly was called unsportsmanlike, especially after the published book of F.M. Halford. We were told that we should present the dry fly as natural as possible. In this case, without any movement, just because a drag pulls the line and therefore moves the fly in an unnatural way on the water surface. And to top it all up, you should present your fly upstream from a rising trout. Although some excellent fishermen who used other techniques and had other ideas and even published these ideas in a book, something unheard of in that time, proved otherwise. Good examples are G.E.M Skuess and Frank Saywer, one of the first nymph fishermen.

And, yes there are some presentations where a drag is used to let the fly move naturally. The leisenring lift is one of the most famous one. But this is being done with a nymph to imitate a nymph swimming to the surface before hatching. Also within Czech-nymphing we let the heaviest nymph drag over the bottom which creates movement in the other nymphs that look like natural movements of swimming nymphs. Also within the wet fly fishing techniques we use drag as the presentation technique.

But when it comes to the most popular way of fishing, which is still fishing with a dry fly, the dead drift is the way to go. And it makes sense to. Any kind of drag lets the fly look completely unnatural. The only dry fly you can get away with this is an imitation of a caddis or sedge.

But why, when almost everything on fly fishing is based on the dead drift, would this presentation of a fly be called overrated, wrong or inefficient? Sounds kind of controversial, doesn’t it? Well the reason is quite easy actually; because we are talking here about western fly fishing, where the whole fly line and leader is lying on the water surface. Within Tenkara we keep most of our line above the water surface and not on it which gives us complete control over our fly.

And here is where my statement comes to its full potential;

The dead drift is overrated or wrongly used or inefficient, within general fly fishing which includes Tenkara. If you start out with tenkara with the notion that the dead drift is the way to go you are definitely missing out. Western fly fishing doesn’t give you any other choice. And I think that they are missing out while using a western fly fishing rod and fishing with a dry fly. Tenkara does give you the option to present your fly in the way you want it to, without creating any drag but still with a natural movement in your artificial fly. This means every kind of fly; the dry fly, the wet fly, the nymph and for some even the streamer.

Now back to why I say that the dead drift is or overrated, or wrong or inefficient.

I have 3 theories or facts that support my statement. I call these facts / theories because they only have been proven by practice and experience but not scientifically. But these theories /facts are made during 6 years of tenkara fishing, guiding, observing and analyzing my own catch rate and that of others and off course observing the behavior of the fish.

Fact / theory 1

The last seasons I have studied insect hatches on the water. From emerging to flying away. Here in Trysil, Norway we have some huge caddis flies, the bright yellow sulphurea may fly, the huge danica and vulgata mayflies, off course the rhodany mayfly and a whole lot of other different flies. When the fish were taking these flies I sneaked up to the fish and I started to look more closely to the behavior of the flies in comparison to that of the fish. And I didn’t do this just once but several times during several seasons to be sure. And each time I noticed that those flies which made some movement with their legs or where trying to fly away but failed and got back on the water again were taken by the fish. But the flies that laid their eggs by letting themselves drop hard on the watersurface and had a deaddrift of 1 or 1,5 meter were also taken. The flies that didn’t move at all were seldom taken by the fish. Those that made movement on the water and crossed the path of the fish were taken without hesitation.

Fact/theory 2

Another reason why I believe more in movement is because we have with tenkara complete control over our flies, I work the fishingspots in a certain way, I fish by a system. Especially when fishing the big Trysil river, I will always start out with a dry fly and a wet fly underneath it. My first two drifts will be with the deaddrift presentation, my 3rd and 4th drift will be a deaddrift but I will incorporate small jumping of the dry fly on the surface. This movement is not higher than 1 cm. This also means that I will get an upwards movement on the wet fly. My 5th and 6th drift is a drift where the flies jump like crazy on the watersurface.

Now what I noticed during 6 seasons of exclusively tenkara fishing is that the first two drifts can produce fish but not so often. These two drifts are more a security for me to know that I have tried the subtlest presentation in my drift. Most often just when the fly lands I get a take or just before I start my back-cast they will take the upwards moving wet fly . So the 1st and the 2nd drift can produce fish but not so frequently. As soon as I have started with the 3rd drift, this means a dead drift of 30 -40 cm I will move the fly. Almost every time I will get a take when I move the fly. It is almost a guarantee that if the fish is there and is able to see my fly it will take it. Not only that, if it doesn’t take my dry fly it will take my wet fly because that moved as well. Those seldom cases that I don’t catch anything on the 3rd and 4th drift I will incorporate a massive amount of movement that triggers the predator mode of the fish. But I rarely get some fish on that one.

If I do not catch any fish after these six drifts that we talked about, I will take two steps in another direction and do the same 6 drifts. This is a very effective way to fish quickly through a stretch and cover a lot of ground. If I tried two or three different spots with this method and haven’t caught any fish and haven’t seen any insects, I will change flies or fishing technique. This change will very often deliver me some fish. Take in mind that this change will occur within 10 – 20 minutes. I just need to find out what is working. And yes sometimes fishing is slow, but one fish or two fish is enough. It means that the technique is working but I just need to move a lot to find the fish. Some days I catch 20 in three hours some days ten. It doesn’t always mean that I am doing something wrong. Sometimes the fishing is just slow.

To conclude what I have just told you; I do get more takes on manipulated presentations and yes the landing of the fly can be seen as a manipulation as well.

Fact / theory 3

During this season (2016), I guided mostly people with a western fly fishing rod. I had a group of 40 Danish people during a whole week which I guided. Now the places that I showed them had a lot of fish but they were not catching so many fish. In fact, by myself I would always catch an average of 15 or 20 fish on that spot during three hours with a tenkara rod. Now there were 5 people fishing 8 hours and they caught 25 fish. One thing has to be stated that not everyone was as experienced in presenting the fly and approaching this river as I was, but still. There was only one person fishing with a tenkara rod, but only because he broke his rod… He was very skeptical to begin with, until he started catching fish! During that day, from the 25 fish that were caught, he caught 11 of them. The group learnt a lot that day about presenting the fly and approaching the river the right way which was of great benefit to them during the rest of the week. But I just had to know, the week after, and the fish were hard pressured that week before, I went back with my tenkara rod and caught my average in 3 hours. The day after my own fishing trip, I had a beginner within Tenkara and he booked me for 4 hours. I went to the same spot and he caught 6 fish and had 10 misses that were to blame of him being a beginner. This theory of movement has now also been proven by guiding guests. A tenkara rod can apply more movement to a fly, and when doing this right, it will increase your catch rate in comparison with the deaddrift within western fly fishing.

There is only one situation that is the exception of the rule from my experience;

These spots are very good fish holding places because a lot of food is being gathered there and will be there for a long amount of time as well. These fishing spots are where a creek comes out in the river or around islands where there are several streams. One of these streams will always collide with the main stream or these creeks will collide with the river. And when they do it creates a sort of wall with still standing water where all insects gather and are stuck there for a certain amount of time before they get into the mainstream again. But these can also be tiny pockets in a creek created by boulders. But in creeks, the landing of the fly can be seen as the movement or trigger within a short dead drift. But in these situations this is where, taken the creeks aside, the dead drift can be very successful. The fish has the time to inspect the flies, and will take this time as well. When cooperating movement in your drift do this carefully, meaning keeping as much line of the water so the fish can’t be spooked at all by a fly line or tippet on the water surface. You will be amazed how many big fish will be standing there, but also how difficult they are to catch. Do not forget that a grayling of 40+ cm is at least 12 to 15 years old! This in my opinion, at the places where I fish the most, the big Trysil river, the river delta and larger creeks, is the exception of the rule.

When we look at Tenkara and the Tenkara presentations of the fly, not the hybrid or western presentations of the fly that are being used, you will see that we present the fly with movement or lack there off. Yes, there are free drifts but they are relatively short and landing of the fly can be seen as the trigger or movement in the drift itself. And it has survived all the way through 2016 and it has given results for professional fishermen. And it is still giving results today!

Tenkara gives you the ultimate advantage of total control over your flies. By just keeping a tight line between the fly and your rod and slightly tapping your index finger on the rod the fly will jump one cm from the surface and land again. The way you incorporate your tapping will show you how hard you have to tap for imitating a fly that is moving its legs, trying to fly away but fails or is lying eggs.

BUT do not forget that the presentation of your fly, dead drift, with a western fly rod leaves you no other choice. If you want to incorporate a movement in your fly it will create a drag. This drag is only forgivable when you use for example a streaking caddis.

Now there is a way to achieve this with a western fly rod as well. You need a soft rod in #3 that can cast a Tenkara line and from a length and preferably a 12 feet rod. The one I got is 10 feet and I do notice the limitations with this short rod. The thing is that I use this rod to fish a combination of tenkara and western fly fishing. First I fish tenkaraa but when I see fish rising in the spots that are the exception of the rule and are out of reach, I will make my line longer and present my flies with a reach cast dead drift to the fish. It is very effective because you can change so quick from tenkara fishing to westernstyle fishing and vice versa. But there is only one reason why I use it; There is a place that I know of, which hold very large fish in a current of 1,5 meter deep and it is completely impossible for me to follow the fish. A big trout will go full speed in to the current and I do not stand a chance. Why is this technique not so known or tried as much? The rods available that have these characteristics are rare and far too expensive. They are easily above the the 300,- mark ( both dollar and euro) which is too expensive for most of us.

So when you look at these three arguments;

(1) observing the natural habitat of the fish with its interaction of emerging flies until they fly away, (2) my own catch-rate with different presentations of the fly and last, (3) the difference in catch rate during guiding people with a tenkara rod or western fly rod, no matter what their skill level is, you can make the conclusion that a lack of movement results in a lower catch rate. That is why a lot of people also say that if the fish are there and your presentation is right they will take your fly almost immediately. The landing of the fly or the added movement by the fisherman triggers the fish to feed.

So from my point of view, we have definitely a huge advantage by fishing with a tenkara rod on creeks, streams and rivers where we are with our tenkara rod and line within reach of the fish, over a western fly rod when presenting our flies to the fish. Just because we can present our flies in more than one natural way then just the dead drift without creating any drag. And looking at the results of natural behavior and catch rate I find the dead drift often overrated or wrongly used or inefficient.